Nobel Prizes Recognize NIGMS Grantee, Research Areas

Crystal structure of the β2-adrenergic receptor-Gs protein complex.We learned this morning that Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine, whose research is supported by NIGMS and other parts of NIH, will share the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University Medical School, a long-time grantee of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. They are being recognized “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.”

Their seminal work, primarily involving the β-adrenergic receptor, has widened understanding of how these biologically and medically important proteins operate. It has also contributed to an expanding library of related structures, which have been notoriously difficult to obtain. And it complements the ongoing efforts of many other researchers, including those funded through a variety of special NIH activities, among them the NIH Common Fund Structural Biology Program, which NIGMS helps administer.

Dr. Kobilka’s “molecular masterpiece,” the high-resolution structure of the β2-adrenergic receptor attached to its G protein partner, was published just last year. We’re proud that our funding contributed to this achievement.

We also congratulate the 2012 Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine, Sir John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes. They’re honored “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.” Their advances have propelled this area of stem cell research forward and have opened up many new avenues of investigation that are being pursued by NIGMS grantees.

We are delighted that these prizes, which were awarded during our 50th anniversary year, offer a further testament to the importance and value of basic research. We look forward to continuing to support basic studies that form the foundation for new and better ways to treat and prevent disease and improve health.

Meet the NIGMS-Funded PECASE Winners

Each year, NIH institutes and centers nominate outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to individuals beginning their independent research careers. The grantees, who must be new investigators in the first year of an R01 or DP2 award, are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route, and community service activities. In recent years, NIH has annually nominated 20 individuals, with approximately 1 or 2 of them being NIGMS grantees.

Photo of Neils Ringstad (top) and Erica Larschan (bottom).

Among this year’s PECASE recipients are two NIGMS grantees, Niels Ringstad of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and Erica N. Larschan of Brown University. We identified them because of their cutting-edge neuroscience and developmental genetics research, respectively, and their outstanding commitment to education, mentoring and increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce.

Below, they answer questions about their research and PECASE experience and offer advice to other early career scientists.

What does your research focus on?

Neils Ringstad: Our lab studies the simple behaviors of a small roundworm to identify genes that function in chemical signaling in the nervous system. Even though the organism we study, Caenorabditis elegans, has a tiny nervous system with only 302 neurons, these neurons are very similar to the neurons in our brains and use many of the same neurotransmitters to transmit and process information. We’re particularly interested in serotonin signaling pathways, which are important therapeutic targets in psychiatry.

Erica Larschan: We study how genes are precisely targeted for regulation within the highly compact eukaryotic genome. Gene regulation is a fundamental process that is misregulated in many diseases including cancers. We are interested in identifying new proteins that could serve as targets for anti-cancer therapies.

What was it like to come to Washington, D.C., to meet NIH staff, the President and other PECASE recipients?

Ringstad: It was a tremendous honor to be an awardee. We heard a resounding endorsement of basic science and a clear statement of its value to the American people from both the White House and the NIH. That gave me and my group a boost that will last for years.

Larschan: My PECASE visit was one of the most exciting moments of my scientific career. It was a great opportunity to present brand new data from our lab to a broader audience and interact with the other PECASE winners.

What advice would you give to young investigators?

Ringstad: We pick problems to tackle because we see some good in solving them, and we pick them before we know how tough they are to solve. Don’t lose sight of the hopes and expectations that you had for your project before you did your first experiment.

Larschan: The most important piece of advice is to focus on the most exciting and central questions that you can address with your research. It is essential to use many different approaches to rigorously answer the most difficult questions.

Honoring Basic Research

Especially because it’s our anniversary year, I’m very pleased that basic biomedical research supported by NIGMS is receiving important recognition.

The 2012 Lasker Awards Exit icon honor five scientists whose research we have supported for decades:

  • The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award is shared by Michael Sheetz of Columbia University, James Spudich of Stanford University School of Medicine and Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco, for their advances in the detailed study of cytoskeletal motor proteins.
  • The Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science is shared by Donald D. Brown of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Tom Maniatis of Columbia University for advancing the study of genes as well as for their support of the scientific enterprise. I should also note that Dr. Brown was among the first speakers in our annual DeWitt Stetten, Jr., lecture series, which we established in 1982 to mark our 20th anniversary.

Since the first Lasker Award was presented in 1946, 81 recipients have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes for their scientific accomplishments.

A Roadmap for Glycoscience

The National Research Council of the National Academies has released a report titled Transforming Glycoscience: A Roadmap for the Future Exit icon. The report was sponsored by several NIH institutes, including NIGMS, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. It was prepared by the Committee on Assessing the Importance and Impact of Glycomics and Glycosciences Exit icon, chaired by David Walt of Tufts University.

The committee was charged to “articulate a unified vision for the field on glycoscience and glycomics” and to “develop a roadmap with concrete research goals to significantly advance [them].”

Their major recommendations are that NIH, NSF, DOE and other relevant stakeholders place a high priority on the development of:

  • Transformative methods for the facile synthesis of carbohydrates and glycoconjuates;
  • Transformative tools for the detection, imaging, separation and high-resolution structure determination of carbohydrate structures and mixtures; and
  • Transformative capabilities for perturbing carbohydrate and glycoconjugate structure, recognition, metabolism and biosynthesis.

The report also supports the development of:

  • Robust, validated informatics tools to enable accurate carbohydrate and glycoconjugate structural prediction, computational modeling and data mining. This capability will broaden access of glycoscience data to the entire scientific community.
  • A long-term-funded, stable, integrated, centralized database that includes mammalian, plant and microbial carbohydrates and glycoconjugates and has links to other databases. The deposition of new structures using a reporting standard should be required.
  • Integration of the glycosciences into the science curriculum.

While NIGMS has a long history of investment in the glycosciences, including funding for the Consortium for Functional Glycomics glue grant Exit icon and the development of methods and tools required for a full glycomics effort, the report sets an ambitious pace that would require a broad, multidisciplinary, multi-agency effort. It’s possible that the report may help guide the development of future NIH initiatives in the areas identified.

Gerald Hart, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the committee that prepared the report, will brief the NIGMS Advisory Council of its findings at its September meeting. NAS staff involved in developing the report will also be in attendance to respond to questions.

NIGMS to House New, Trans-NIH Office of Emergency Care Research

Many NIH components, including NIGMS, support research and training relevant to care in the emergency medical setting. To facilitate and coordinate its activities in this area, NIH has created an Office of Emergency Care Research (OECR) that is housed in NIGMS.

Although OECR will not fund grants, it will serve as a focal point for basic, clinical and translational emergency care research and training across NIH. The office’s activities will include:

  • Coordinating funding opportunities that involve multiple NIH institutes and centers.
  • Working closely with the NIH Emergency Care Research Working Group, which includes representatives from many NIH institutes and centers.
  • Organizing scientific meetings to identify new research and training opportunities in emergency settings.
  • Catalyzing the development of new funding opportunities.
  • Informing investigators about funding opportunities in their areas of interest.
  • Fostering career development for trainees in emergency care research.
  • Representing NIH in government-wide efforts to improve the nation’s emergency care system.

OECR’s creation is a culmination of more than 5 years of discussions between NIH and the emergency medicine community. The initial impetus for these conversations was three Institute of Medicine reports on emergency care in 2006.

While a search is being conducted for a permanent director, OECR is being led on an acting basis by Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Assisting him is Alice M. Mascette, M.D., senior clinical science advisor in the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

You can learn more about OECR at

Director Search to Resume

Chris Kaiser, who had been selected as the NIGMS director, withdrew his candidacy on April 23 for personal reasons, so a new search for a permanent NIGMS director will need to be initiated. I will continue to serve as acting NIGMS director during this process. When a vacancy announcement for the position is available, we’ll share it with you. In the meantime, you can read a post about the previous search process.

Reflecting on Our Golden Anniversary

NIGMS 50th Anniversary BannerLast October, I told you that NIGMS would be commemorating its 50th anniversary in 2012.  We hope you will help us mark this milestone by participating in our upcoming anniversary events, which include sessions at scientific meetings and a special symposium on the NIH campus that will feature talks by three outstanding NIGMS-funded investigators as well as poster presentations by NIGMS-supported undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral scientists.

Another way to get involved is to provide a personal reflection about NIGMS. I want to thank those who have already sent theirs and encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read them. I hope they will inspire you to send in one of your own. We welcome individual or group contributions of any length and in any format (text, audio or video).

NIGMS 50th Anniversary Sessions at Scientific Society Meetings

NIGMS 50th Anniversary Logo

As we told you in an earlier post, NIGMS turns 50 this year. One of the ways we’re marking this milestone is by sponsoring speakers or symposia at a number of scientific society meetings.

We’ve already been to the Society for Glycobiology and the American Society for Cell Biology meetings, and in the coming months, we’re headed to these additional venues:

  • Biophysical Society
  • United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation
  • Genetics Society of America
  • International Society for Computational Biology
  • American Chemical Society
  • Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science
  • Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students

If you’ll be at one of these meetings, please come to our sponsored session to hear from our grantees and meet some of our staff. Also, please acknowledge NIGMS funding support during your meeting talks and poster presentations, and feel free to use one of our 50th anniversary logos for this purpose.

To highlight our commitment to training, we’re also sponsoring student or postdoctoral fellow poster awards at a number of these events. We’ll invite poster award winners to present their work at the NIGMS 50th anniversary symposium at NIH on October 17. Stay tuned for details about that event in a future post.

Remarkable Ruth Kirschstein: New Biography of an NIGMS Director

As the director of NIGMS from 1974 to 1993, Ruth L. Kirschstein molded the Institute’s agenda for basic science, research training and promoting diversity. She also set a tone for the Institute that remains to this day. After leaving NIGMS, Ruth went on to serve as the deputy director of NIH, and, for two periods, she was NIH’s acting director.

From the time she recruited me to NIGMS in 1981 until her death in 2009, Ruth was also my mentor and friend, as she was to many others who worked for or interacted with her.

A new biography by science writer Alison Davis, Always There: The Remarkable Life of Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D., tells the inspiring story of a scientist, physician, administrator, leader, humanitarian, classical pianist, lover of music and art, and devoted wife and mother. This amazing, multitasking woman really was “always there.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in reading about an extraordinary woman and her dedication and many contributions to NIH and beyond. The book is available for free in several digital formats.

NIGMS Reorganizes

In the first major reorganization of NIGMS since 1994, we have just established two new divisions that bring together existing NIGMS programs with programs transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). These changes give us the opportunity to create synergies and strengthen efforts in areas that are central to our mission.

The Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity (TWD) merges NIGMS research training programs with activities that were previously in the Institute’s Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE). It also houses the Institutional Development Award program from NCRR. Our decision to create this division was informed by input we received from many stakeholders, and it responds to key goals and recommendations of our strategic plans. Its director is Clif Poodry, who formerly directed the MORE Division.

The Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB) combines programs of our Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB) with biomedical technology programs from NCRR. Karin Remington, who previously directed CBCB, is the director of this new division.

You might be wondering what the reorganization will mean for your current or future funding. The amount of money allocated to programs in the new divisions will not change as a result of the reorganization or the transfer of NCRR programs to NIGMS. The review of applications will stay the same, too, as will most of the staff who manage the grants and review the applications.

Our current organizational chart shows all six NIGMS divisions, including the two new ones.

I’ve been at NIGMS for many years—first as a program director, then as a division director and twice as acting Institute director. One of the things I like best about all these jobs is having a bird’s-eye view of the rapid evolution of science. The reorganization that is taking place at NIGMS reflects this evolution and, I expect, will enable NIGMS to further enhance the pace of science.